What Will Self Driving Cars Mean for Us?

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Stanley - DARPA's Grand Challenge winner for the driverless car
"You're looking at these issues of congestion, safety, energy and emissions. Technically there should be no reason why we can't transfer to a totally different world.'' 
-Larry Burns, GM's vice president for research and development

In 2005, a team from Stanford University won the DARPA Grand Challenge, to drive a vehicle 212 km (132 mi) on an off-road course. This race was featured by the series NOVA.  Google has also developed a self-driving car which had covered more than 140,000 miles in the US.  It is rumoured they are considering selling vehicles, or the technology.  General Motors might start selling cars with the technology by 2020. With increasing numbers, self-driving cars are soon to be the norm, not the exception on our roads.  What will this sea change mean for our car centred society?

According to Sebastian Thrun, lead researcher on the DARPA winner and at Google X, "It will really change society, very much like the transition from a horse to a car."

Some of what to expect from a world of autonomous vehicles may be:
  • Better safety due to the autonomous system's increased reliability compared to human drivers
  • Increased roadway capacity due to reduced need of safety gaps and the ability to better manage traffic flow.
  • Removal of constraints on occupant's state - it would not matter if the occupants were too young, too old or if their frame of mind were not suitable to drive a traditional car. Furthermore, disabilities would no longer matter.
  • Elimination of redundant passengers - humans are not required to take the car anywhere, as the robotic car can drive empty to wherever it is required.
  • Alleviation of parking scarcity as cars could drop off passengers, park far away where space is not scarce, and return as needed to pick up passengers.

Source: New York Times

According to Google, safety has been the first priority in their driverless car project. The World Health Organization reports that more than 1.2 million lives are lost every year in road traffic accidents. Self driving car technology has the potential to cut that number, perhaps by as much as half. Google is  confident that self-driving cars will transform car sharing, significantly reducing car usage, as well as help create the new “highway trains of tomorrow." These highway trains should cut energy consumption while also increasing the number of people that can be transported on our major roads.  So far, the only accident involving the Google car was when one was rear-ended while stopped at a traffic light.

Robot drivers react faster than humans, have 360-degree perception and do not get distracted, sleepy or intoxicated, the pundits argue. Bill Ford has also talked about the safety improvements that can be made with self-driving automobiles.

GM's advanced automotive safety and navigation technology will be used to create self-driving cars.

Road Efficiency
Self-driving automobile technology could double the capacity of roads by allowing cars to drive more safely while closer together. Furthermore, the vehicles would be connected to the cloud, to communicate position, hazards and other factors to the network, and to the other vehicles on the road.  Because the robot cars would eventually be less likely to crash, they could be built lighter, reducing fuel consumption. But of course, to be truly safer, the cars must be far more reliable than, say, today’s personal computers, which crash on occasion and are frequently infected.
Subsequent versions of driverless technology could reduce jams by directing vehicles to space themselves close together, almost as if they were cars in a train, and maximize the use of space on a freeway.

New-found productivity
As a suburbanite, I spend the better part of two and a half, to four hours in my vehicle everyday commuting, running errands, and most frequently idling at red lights or in traffic.  In terms of time efficiency, the U.S. Department of Transportation estimates that people spend on average 52 minutes each working day commuting. Imagine being able to spend that time more productively.  Reading, working on a laptop or tablet, catching up with phone calls, even sleeping may be a better use of time than focusing on the grind of bumper-to-bumper traffic.  This time-slot of personal productivity may not be as long as we first anticipate however as autonomous vehicles, communicating with each other will undoubtedly get occupants to destinations a lot quicker.

Technological obsolescence of driving-based jobs.
The number of people involved in transportation globally as their main source of employment is staggering.  According to the Research and Innovative Technology Administration (RITA) Bureau of Transportation statistics, the total labour force in transportation was over 13 million in 2009.  Of this around one and a half million are truck drivers. Jobs involved with driver training, and licencing will eventually be greatly reduced or eliminated altogether.  Police department revenues from traffic violations may vanish into thin air leaving municipal and state coffers dry.

driverless cars

In a wider scale, once self-driving cars are tied into other systems, there will be effects in areas not necessarily related to driving alone.  With cloud systems like Google's ROS, the object recognition database world-wide will be populated exponentially.  Google maps will be updated in real-time, with much greater levels of detail.  Once other robotic systems (like android assistants, flying robots and smaller long-distance autonomous vehicles) come on-line, they too will be able to navigate with safety and precision.  Logistics and supply chains may be filled with even greater speed and accuracy than they are today, even down to a personal level.

Transportation design itself may be put in the hands of artificial intelligence agents to allow for maximum throughput and efficiency for traffic corridors.  With the amount of people that will have their jobs displaced by the technology, it may be necessary to develop with rampant homelessness a consideration.

Questions remain such as how drivers' privacy will be affected, whether current vehicles can be retrofitted and how many vehicles would be needing the systems to develop an effective network. Many drivers are already uncomfortable with "event data recorders" like OnStar in most new cars that record everything a car was doing immediately before an impact. What will the reaction be to cars that continuously broadcast everything a car does?

There are also issues of trust. Some drivers will always put ultimate faith in their own driving skillls no matter what. Moreover, many will simply miss the pleasure of driving a car.  Will there be special tracks or areas set aside for human-driven vehicles?

With concerns rising over "distracted driving," however, it's clear that most people would rather be doing something else while they're behind wheel.  According to GM's Burns, "We've concluded that, for a lot of people, driving has become the distraction."

Like any other revolution in technology, the predictions do not often match the results, but in the case of self driving cars we won't have long to wait.

In the video below, Sebastian Thrun explains the development of the Stanford and Google self-driving car projects.